international analysis and commentary

America’s allies and Libya: why coalitions make sense


In recent years American analysts and policymakers across the political spectrum have become increasingly critical of America’s European allies and the practice of fighting wars in partnership with them. As the Libyan crisis unfolds, critics of the Obama administration would have us believe that multilateralism is a mistake. For example, The New York Times’ David Brooks has recently written about the “structural weaknesses that bedevil multilateral efforts.” A closer look at the historical record and the Libyan crisis reveals that many of these criticisms are overstated. The United States has benefited from fighting wars multilaterally in the past and is right to have waged the Libyan air campaign alongside allies.

Some contend that America’s European allies are reluctant to lead in the absence of a strong stance by the United States. In fact, America’s allies have led when the US was reluctant to act. In the 1999 Kosovo crisis, British Prime Minister Tony Blair took the lead in pressing for an air war and, later, for the use of ground troops. In the 2011 Libyan crisis, while US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was stressing the costs of establishing a no-fly zone, France and Britain were taking a strong early stance in favor of one, pushing for what became UN Security Council resolution 1973. France went so far as to recognize the rebel movement and launched the first air attacks.

Critics also argue that America’s allies do not bear their fair share of the burden when war comes. As of March 4th, NATO allies had more than 42,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan alongside 90,000 US troops. True, some allies’ actions are restricted by “caveats” but reports that 866 of 2,376 deaths in Afghanistan have been borne by America’s allies. In a March 25 briefing on the Libyan campaign, Navy Vice Admiral William E. Gortney reported that allies are fully responsible for enforcing the no-fly zone and roughly half of the previous day’s sorties were undertaken by allies.

Now, because a solution to the Libyan crisis was not achieved in a matter of days, we hear critics say that coalition warfare is slow and strategically suboptimal. The 1991 Persian Gulf War was fought by a large US-led coalition but was able to act rapidly when economic sanctions proved ineffective in compelling Saddam Hussein’s withdrawal from Kuwait. While a multilateral response to the Libyan crisis meant waiting for Arab League and United Nations Security Council approval for the air campaign, the coalition has moved swiftly since. Yes, it took a few days for allies to agree that NATO would assume command and control of military operations under Operation Unified Protector but that issue was settled on March 24th without significant negative effects on strategy or tactics.

The deliberation and lack of speed that come with multilateralism may even be productive. As a case in point, had NATO allies had a greater say in American target selection, the US might not have accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy during Operation Allied Force in 1999. The Libyan air campaign most certainly is seen as more legitimate because it was seen as a true last resort.

Finally, critics argue that allies are unreliable because they lack courage in the face of their public’s reluctance to pay the costs of war. Tony Blair’s Labour government faced down massive public opposition to provide a 46,000 troop contribution to the 2003 Iraq War. Blair could afford to be so defiant because – as is often the case – the leading opposition party (the Conservatives) supported his choice to deploy troops. The government could be courageous because angry voters had nowhere to take their frustrations. The British public have their doubts about Libya as well. Recent polling indicates that 53% of Britons find it unacceptable for British servicemen to die battling the Gheddafi regime. In spite of the public’s stance, Prime Minister David Cameron knew the opposition Labour party would support the government’s decision to participate, which they did by a massive margin.

So why do America’s allies put their most treasured assets, their servicemen and women, on the line in operations like this one? Looking at previous cases, two logics stand out: to address a threat to their national interest and to maintain or enhance prestige. In his March 21 address to the House of Commons, Cameron said that Britain had to act because “[i]f Gheddafi’s attacks on his own people succeed, Libya will become once again a pariah state, festering on Europe’s border, a source of instability, exporting terror beyond her borders.” And while French President Nicolas Sarkozy also views the Libyan conflict as a threat to his country’s national interest, the prominent leading role France has taken in the Libyan conflict may be more a demonstration of his country’s constant search for grandeur.

As President Obama said in his March 28th address on Libya “American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs.” The Obama administration was right to wage this air campaign with allies. The record shows that America’s allies contribute much and do not have the negative effects some would lead us to believe.